Lawsuit filed by wrongfully convicted man details how law enforcement officials allegedly framed him

In this file photo from December 1999, Floyd Bledsoe enters Jefferson County Court in Oskaloosa.

A laugh led to the murder of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann in 1999; a widespread conspiracy in Jefferson County led to the wrong man spending 15 years in prison for the crime, according to allegations in a new federal lawsuit.

As the Journal-World reported earlier this month, Floyd Bledsoe filed a federal lawsuit seeking an undetermined amount of money for being wrongly imprisoned in 2000 for the death of Arfmann, who was his sister-in-law.

In December, a Jefferson County judge ordered Bledsoe to be released after long-sought DNA testing results and other new evidence showed he could not have been the perpetrator. The new evidence was in a suicide note his brother, Tom Bledsoe, wrote confessing to the crime.

The Journal-World reviewed the court documents filed by Floyd Bledsoe’s attorneys, a civil rights firm that specializes in wrongful convictions and police misconduct suits.

The filings reveal details of the case previously not reported, including that Tom Bledsoe allegedly shot and killed Arfmann after she laughed at him when he tried to have sex with her in a pickup truck.

The filings make multiple allegations against Jefferson County law enforcement, the county’s then-prosecutor, Bledsoe’s defense attorney, and agents with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The filings, however, don’t present a motive for why law enforcement officials and others sought to frame Floyd Bledsoe.

An attorney on the case said figuring out why it happened is a main purpose of the lawsuit.

“This is not just about compensation for Floyd,” said Russell Ainsworth, an attorney with the firm Loevy and Loevy. “It is also about ensuring that these egregious acts of misconduct never occur again.”

Here’s a look at details contained in the recently filed lawsuit. All the defendants contacted by the Journal-World declined to comment for this article.

Probable cause

In 1999, not all law enforcement officers involved in the murder investigation agreed there was enough evidence to charge Floyd Bledsoe with the murder.

Kirk Vernon, who was a young Jefferson County sheriff’s detective at the time, assisted in the investigation by following up on some leads.

He testified at the December hearing when Floyd was ordered released from prison that he filled out Floyd’s arrest report. But Vernon also testified that he had concerns about whether detectives had enough probable cause to arrest Floyd, according to district court transcripts obtained by the Journal-World.

Because of his concerns, Vernon testified that he signed the arrest report differently from how he always does, not just with his signature, but also the sheriff’s: “Arresting Officer Roy Dunnaway by Kirk Vernon.”

Vernon was asked by Alice Craig, a lawyer for the Midwest Innocence Project, why he signed the arrest report that way.

“I had concerns” that there was not enough evidence to actually arrest Floyd, he testified.

Craig then asked, “And that’s why you didn’t actually sign your signature?”

Vernon, now a captain, replied: “That’s why I notated it the way I did. Yes.”

Craig did not ask Vernon that day why he believed the sheriff did not have enough evidence to arrest Floyd.

But Floyd’s new lawsuit appears to be opening up those secrets.

Tom’s confessions

When Floyd’s sister-in-law Camille disappeared, he, his wife, Camille’s mother and siblings, friends and deputies spent most of that Saturday and Sunday searching for her.

Tom and his parents did not join in the search, which people later said they thought was odd.

That Sunday night, as the search continued, Tom called his minister twice, saying he knew where Camille was and that he was going to surrender to police.

“Forgive me for what I’ve done and I will pay for the rest of my life,” the complaint says Tom told the minister.

That same evening, Tom and Mike Hayes, the attorney Tom’s parent’s hired for him, went to the sheriff’s office and met with Sheriff Dunnaway, Deputy Robert Poppa, KBI agent James Woods and others.

Through his attorney, Tom told the officers that “Camille had been murdered and that he knew the location of her body,” the complaint says.

During the evening, Tom and Hayes gave additional details including that Camille had been shot multiple times, once in the back of the head, and was taken to the dump, where her body was buried.

The complaint reveals publicly for the first time why Tom said he killed Camille: He told officers he was in his truck with Camille when he tried to have sex with her, but she laughed at him and he shot her, the complaint says.

Tom and his attorney took the deputies to the dump, where Camille was buried next to an X-rated movie and a T-shirt that said Countryside Baptist Church.

Tom’s attorney also gave the murder weapon, a Jennings 9mm firearm, to the deputies.

Tom would confess at least one more time a few days later after the conspiracy to frame Floyd was in place, the lawsuit says.

False narrative

Several days after Tom was arrested and charged with the murder, his defense attorney, prosecutor Jim Vanderbilt and others met “to put into action their scheme to fabricate Tom’s testimony,” the complaint says.

The “false narrative” described how Tom met Floyd at a roadside intersection a day after Camille disappeared: During their discussion, Floyd confessed to Tom and told him if he didn’t take the blame, Floyd would expose Tom’s history of viewing X-rated movies, masturbating and having sex with a dog. The lawsuit alleges that conversation never happened.

Tom’s attorney and deputies then coached Tom to recite it, the complaint says.

On Friday, Nov. 12, 1999, both Floyd and Tom were brought in for polygraph testing that KBI agent George Johnson conducted.

At some point during Tom’s test, he recanted, reciting the narrative that he had been practicing, the complaint says. He then failed the question, “Did you kill Camille Arfmann?” the complaint says.

Afterward Tom was overcome with guilt and “confessed yet again” to Johnson, Vanderbilt and others, the complaint says. But Johnson counseled Tom, telling him “to continue lying to implicate Floyd,” the complaint says.

Floyd then was given the test and passed, “truthfully disavowing any involvement in the crime because he had nothing to do with it.” That evening, Vanderbilt released Tom from jail and dropped his charges. Floyd was arrested soon after and charged with the murder.

Over the next several weeks, the defendants continued to fabricate Tom’s statement about the roadside meeting, the complaint says.

Det. Randy Carreno and others also set the time frame to fit the “fictitious meeting” into “the brief period of time in which they believed (wrongly) that Floyd lacked an alibi,” the complaint says.

All of the information regarding Tom’s activities and detailed statements between Nov. 8 and Nov. 12 were withheld from Floyd and his attorney.

Tom’s false narrative was prosecutor Vanderbilt’s “central piece of evidence” at trial, the complaint says.

Suppressed evidence

Even as officers were actively working to help Tom blame his brother for the crime, they worked to incriminate Floyd, according to the lawsuit.

Floyd worked at a dairy. The day of Camille’s disappearance, he went to work at midmorning and didn’t return until almost midnight, after Camille’s mother called him to report the girl was missing.

The lawsuit says Floyd’s whereabouts were “thoroughly accounted for, at every point from 4:20 p.m., on Friday, Nov. 5, when Camille went missing, until Sunday, Nov. 7, at 9 p.m., when Tom confessed.

Floyd’s alibi was corroborated by numerous witnesses, a time-stamped receipt and phone records, the complaint says. Even Det. Carreno, who allegedly helped fabricate the narrative, spent most of Saturday with Floyd searching for Camille.

In addition, detectives interrogated Floyd for hours, searched his clothes and his car rigorously, and finally used a bloodhound to search for evidence. They failed to find any.

But Tom’s home, his room, and his truck were not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny. Just the opposite, the lawsuit contends: Officers “actively suppressed physical evidence that would have proved Tom’s guilt.”

That included evidence from the truck where Camille was shot and a shovel that Tom said he used to bury Camille’s body. DNA testing results also remain a mystery. During the investigation, Dunnaway, Vanderbilt and the KBI’s Woods signed an order that inexplicably stopped DNA testing of sperm found in Camille. The test results of that same DNA sample 15 years later freed Floyd from prison.

Eight months after Floyd was charged, he was sentenced to life in prison. He had chosen a jury trial over a plea agreement of five years in prison that Vanderbilt offered because he said he was innocent of the crime.

At the sentencing, Floyd was on the stand and broke down and cried, saying he didn’t kill Camille. He wondered out loud why his brother and the Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies had done this to him before being led away.

Floyd’s wrongful imprisonment lawsuit was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan. A trial date has not yet been set.

Agencies investigating possible criminal wrongdoing

A top Jefferson County official said both the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office are conducting internal investigations into the Floyd Bledsoe case.

Jason Belveal, the elected county attorney for Jefferson County, said investigators were trying to determine whether there was criminal wrongdoing related to Floyd Bledsoe’s wrongful imprisonment.

But Belveal said even if criminal intent is found, it might be impossible to prosecute because of the timing.

The KBI assigned one agent not connected to the Bledsoe case to investigate and the sheriff assigned two deputies, one who had minimal involvement in the original case and the second who had none.

Belveal told the Journal-World he would not comment on the pending lawsuit. KBI officials also had no comment.

An unsigned statement on KBI letterhead acknowledged the lawsuit filed against several retired KBI agents.

“We are presently reviewing the allegations in Mr. Bledsoe’s complaint,” the statement said. “It would be inappropriate at this time for us to respond outside of the process established by the court.”

Laura Graham, KBI general counsel, said through an email that the agency doesn’t know when the investigation that began last year will be complete.

“Unfortunately, there’s no good way to estimate when an investigation will be completed,” Graham wrote. “I regret we cannot be of more assistance.”

Separately, through his staff, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who oversees the KBI, declined to comment for this article.

The KBI agents involved in the investigation are George Johnson and James Woods, both retired. Woods is a Lawrence resident and has declined to comment. Johnson could not be reached.

In addition, KBI agent Terry Morgan left the KBI but is still a state employee, investigating complaints about lawyers for the Kansas Supreme Court’s disciplinary administrator. He told the Journal-World he could not comment.

Jim Vanderbilt, Bledsoe’s prosecutor, could not be reached for comment. In 2005, the state Supreme Court suspended his law license for failing to file briefs in a separate criminal case. Vanderbilt had said “he wasn’t going to waste (his) damn time responding to this crap,” according to the complaint. But soon after that Vanderbilt’s license was reinstated when he fulfilled several court-ordered requirements.

In 2011, the state Supreme Court again suspended Vanderbilt’s license, this time indefinitely, after he failed to pay almost $80,000 in child support and was jailed.

Vanderbilt has not had his license reinstated, and he could not be reached for comment for this story.

Michael Hayes, Tom’s defense attorney, is named as a conspirator in the lawsuit. He now lives in Buena Vista, Colo., and did not respond to calls asking for comment.

Former Sheriff Roy Dunnaway, who retired several years ago, lives in the Perry Lake area and could not be reached for comment.

Other Jefferson County sheriff’s employees named in the lawsuit were told by attorneys not to comment. They include:

• Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Herrig, who was an undersheriff when Camille was killed said he could not comment because of the lawsuit. He also said he was not involved in the homicide investigation.

• Randy Carreno, who was the lead detective on the murder case, is now a captain for the department. In 2014, he was awarded the Kansas Sheriff’s Association’s Deputy of the Year.

• Troy Frost is still a detective for the department, and Robert Poppa has been promoted to lieutenant in the patrol division.

• Orin Turner, a sheriff’s captain, retired in 2002 and died at age 69 in 2013.

Timeline: Floyd Bledsoe murder conviction overturned

● May 29, 2016 — Lawsuit filed by wrongfully convicted man details how law enforcement officials allegedly framed him

● May 21, 2016 — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, pushes to end death penalty in Kansas

● May 10, 2016 — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, says he was ‘framed,’ files lawsuit against Kansas justice officials

● Feb. 12, 2016 — Wrongfully convicted Floyd Bledsoe seeks videotaped interrogations in Kansas

● Feb. 8, 2016 — Kansas bill would allow $235K for wrongfully convicted man who spent 15 years in prison

● Jan. 18, 2016 — Jefferson County attorney doesn’t expect further action against former sheriff, others involved in wrongful murder conviction

● Jan. 17, 2016 — Bledsoe case spurs measure to allow compensation for wrongful convictions

● Jan. 10, 2016 — Requiring that police interrogations be recorded might have prevented tragedy of wrongful conviction

● Dec. 30, 2015 — ‘Who are you going to tell?’ — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully convicted of murder, discusses pain of prison, journey to forgiveness

● Dec. 27, 2015 — 1999 Oskaloosa murder case reopened; possibility that killer ‘had assistance’

● Dec. 13, 2015 — Web of lies, indifference to justice led to wrong Kansas brother being imprisoned for more than 15 years

● Dec. 13, 2015 — Kansas has no law on payouts for wrongly incarcerated prisoners

Dec. 8, 2015 — Judge throws out 2000 murder conviction, frees Oskaloosa man after 15 years in prison

● Nov. 13, 2015 — Original suspect in girl’s murder dies of apparent suicide as case about to be revisited

● Oct. 21, 2015 — KU Project for Innocence, Midwest Innocence Project seeks to free convicted murderer with DNA evidence

● July 8, 2012 — Objection to DNA testing not likely

● June 20, 2012 — Motion seeks DNA testing in 1999 murder of teen

● Sept. 30, 2009 — Further appeals limited in Bledsoe case

● July 5, 2009 — 1999 murder case won’t settle

● June 28, 2009 — Federal court reverses release in murder case

● Oct. 7, 2008 — Floyd Bledsoe, sentenced to life for murder of teen sister-in-law, set free; ineffective assistance of counsel cited

● Feb. 3, 2007 — Court upholds murder conviction

● Feb. 2, 2002 — Murder conviction is upheld

● Dec. 5, 2001 — Attorneys appeal conviction of teen-ager’s murderer

● Dec. 2, 2001 — Oskaloosa murder case to be heard

● July 15, 2000 — Victim’s family unsure justice was served

● July 15, 2000 — Bledsoe gets life

● July 14, 2000 — Bledsoe sentenced to life in prison

● June 23, 2000 — Bledsoe sentencing delayed

● May 31, 2000 — Lawyer: Mother’s story changes

● April 30, 2000 — Minister supports Bledsoe in spirit

● April 28, 2000 — Bledsoe found guilty

● April 28, 2000 — Bledsoe murder case goes to jury

● April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe charges amended

● April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe prosecution rests

● April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe murder trial wrapping up

● April 26, 2000 — Tom Bledsoe seeks to explain lies

● April 26, 2000 — Bledsoe told his mother he didn’t kill Arfmann

● April 25, 2000 — Pool of potential jurors knows all about case

● April 25 2000 — Trial starts in murder of girl, 14

● April 24, 2000 — Murder trial to begin today

● Dec. 10, 1999 — Family of victim tries to cope with pain, loss

● Dec. 10, 1999 — Murder suspect enters innocent plea

● Dec. 9, 1999 — Murder suspect to be arraigned

● Nov. 30, 1999 — Case pits brother vs. brother

● Nov. 18, 1999 — Friends relieved charges were dismissed against Oskaloosa man

● Nov. 16, 1999 — Wife proclaims husband’s innocence in girl’s death

● Nov. 14, 1999 — In-law jailed in slaying of teen-ager

● Nov. 14, 1999 — Family, friends mourn Camille

● Nov. 10, 1999 — Quiet hearing for defendant charged with girl’s slaying

● Nov. 10, 1999 — Bledsoe recieves murder charge

● Nov. 9, 1999 — Police hold relative of slain girl

● Nov. 9, 1999 — Girl’s death leaves family, children with questions